There’s a popular catchphrase among climate advocates: “electrify everything.” While electrification may sometimes be a cost-effective path to decarbonization, there are exceptions. After all, end-uses like air travel, shipping, and fertilizer production may be exceedingly difficult and expensive to electrify. Nowhere is this more true than heavy industry.
A new report by Breakthrough Senior Fellow Julio Friedmann and his coauthors at Columbia University convincingly argues that, for decarbonizing industrial heat, electrification is indeed less economical than its alternatives. Instead, the report primarily recommends post-combustion carbon capture and storage (CCS).
But just as electrification is not a panacea, CCS isn’t either. We shouldn’t be so quick to write off the potential of nuclear and hydrogen to play a role in cleaning up process heat as well. In fact, the report’s own analysis finds that nuclear and hydrogen might be cheaper than CCS for some applications. Each of these three solutions deserves dedicated policy support.
The Columbia report focuses on industrial process heat since a majority of US industrial GHG emissions, and 10 percent of global emissions, comes from burning fossil fuels to generate heat. Industry’s reliance on heat — to produce cement, steel, chemicals, glass, and ceramics — makes it arguably the toughest sector of the economy to decarbonize and to electrify.
So what are our options for decarbonizing industrial heat? On one hand, we could substitute cleaner heat sources for fossil fuels, in the form of biofuels, hydrogen, electrified heating (with a clean grid), or nuclear reactors. Alternatively, we could continue to burn fossil fuels but add post-combustion carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology to scrub out the CO2 emissions.
The report’s core finding is that post-combustion CCS may be the best option. In its qualitative assessment of feasibility, the report critiques alternative technologies — like advanced nuclear and hydrogen — for being costlier and more technologically complex than CCS.
In reality, though, CCS faces similar challenges. In fact, as the figure above shows, the report finds nuclear and hydrogen could be cheaper in many cases than post-combustion CCS, and cheaper for most applications than electrification and biofuels as well.
Advanced nuclear could play a significant role in decarbonizing industry. The report notes that most existing nuclear designs do not run hot enough to be used for most industrial processes, which generally require temperatures above 300°C. But smaller, advanced reactors — particularly high-temperature gas reactors and fast reactors — can reach high enough temperatures for several industrial applications. And while the report tells us to “expect no small nuclear power reactors in the United States” (p. 25), Breakthrough research has actually found that advanced nuclear is closer than you think to becoming a reality in the US.
Hydrogen is also a promising area for policy development and industrial demonstration. We already know how to produce hydrogen relatively cheaply and cleanly using natural gas in a process called steam methane reformation (with CCS), which the report finds to be sometimes cheaper for some applications than post-combustion CCS. Meanwhile, hydrogen combustion can achieve the full range of heat intensity needed for industrial processes, up to 2000°C. Retrofitting existing factories to run on hydrogen would require relatively little effort in many cases, which would keep costs low and help speed the transition. Hydrogen can also be used as a reactant for ammonia and petrochemicals production and as a reduction agent in steel manufacturing. Because of this, the authors note that it can be used to reduce emissions for both industrial heat and chemical-reaction-related emissions.
But whatever mix of solutions ultimately proves to be the most economical, the fact of the matter is that electrification has limits. And while this is certainly true for industry, we will need to look beyond electrification to decarbonize other sectors of the economy as well, such as agriculture, shipping, and aviation. We must ensure a diversity of strategies for decarbonization, including CCS, hydrogen, and nuclear, and we must start investing in research, development, and deployment of these technologies to support this transition. This important report lays out some of the most cost-effective solutions we can employ for generating industrial heat, and it sets the stage for future research on these tough-to-decarbonize sectors.